Where do ideas come from?

Ask some basic questions to generate new ideas.

By Graham Allan, DSc, University of Washington, Seattle January 22, 2015

All consulting and specifying engineers know that the solution to every problem starts with an idea. So how can these great starting ideas be generated? Obviously, some process must manufacture them in the mind. But from what? For each person the brain is a storehouse of lifetime experiences, both good and bad. By drawing upon and rearranging such, new concepts emerge. This is why it is impossible to find a totally noncreative person; each mind is already packed with previous observations that can be used.

However, not all of these stored items are readily accessible. Clearly, some engineers are able to retrieve new combinations more fluently than others and are therefore regarded as being more creative. Nonetheless, even those engineers routinely viewed as being less creative must have a large storage of bits and pieces of stuff accumulated over the years.

By recognizing this, all of us can become more creative by making an effort to enhance our access to the treasure trove already within our minds. This is surprisingly easy to accomplish by the mental effort of imagining that you are a fish swimming in a sea of creativity, all the time. As you swim along, you continuously encounter items that can trigger your creativity.

Of course, there may be nothing apparently new in such encounters, but now you will no longer ignore them. For example, at the breakfast table, you normally do not exhibit overt creativity. There may be a box of cereal on the table, which you probably ignore. Nonetheless, the existence of the box is the physical manifestation of many previous acts of creativity. By recognizing this fact, some of the mental connections in the brain will be reinforced and expanded.

Using the mnemonic W5H for questions will help activate this process in the creative part of the mind. W5H stands for “Who What Why Where When and How” and is a very powerful tool. By posing and answering these questions, the cereal box will become a totally new and different entity. Who named the cereal in the box? What else could be on the box? Why is the shape of the cereal so often flakes? Where is the cereal going marketwise? When will the design be changed? How can the box, or the cereal within, be improved?

Asking these six questions means that the box is now being looked at from six different viewpoints. When each perspective is considered separately, a host of new ideas will emerge from interaction with the collection of past personal experiences stored in the mind. For example, could the box be used as an educational tool? For kids or adults? For languages, music, science, or mathematics?

It is not practical to spend the whole day analyzing the creativity locked up in every object encountered. But it is vital to realize that by simple routine observations, creativity and idea production are being practiced. It is like learning the piano. It takes daily practice to enhance fluency. The appreciation of the accomplishments of others is also helpful.

Every engineer is aware of the use of a key to start a vehicle. Most also have experienced the occasional irritating situation where that key has somehow been mislaid. Currently, General Motors is involved with a series of fatal automobile accidents caused by the interaction of keys and defective ignition switches. GM might well have used the W5H approach in looking at ignition keys. Why have ignition keys? Who likes them? After all, ignition keys were invented more than half a century ago and must have been misplaced millions of times. What could replace them? Nowadays, with the advent of wireless technology, some new cars can be started with a push-button activated by a transmitting device in the driver’s pocket. No key involved. When and Where did that idea originate? Notwithstanding the obsolescence of the classic low-cost key, the expensive transmitter can still be mislaid. How could a smartphone perform the wireless function so that a transmitter key is no longer required?

Unfortunately, ideas can vanish as fast as they come. To avoid this very real problem, the employment of a creativity diary is strongly recommended. It can be an old-fashioned paper notebook or a modern electronic file. But it must be updated every day. It only takes a minute or so each night to write a note on the creativity you observed during the day. This is a wonderfully effective way to stimulate your own creativity. The creative ideas noted can be about anything: an idea for a new TV series, a new name for the NFL team located in Washington, D.C., or even a good joke you heard. Every engineering meeting or presentation needs a good laugh.

When you’ve recorded creativity notes for a year, you’ll have at least 300 entries in the diary. If only 1% have any potential long-range value, there will be two or three ideas to merit serious professional attention in the following year.

Graham Allan is a professor in the chemical engineering department and in the college of the environment of the University of Washington in Seattle. He has written more than 300 technical articles and book chapters, has been awarded about 70 patents, and consults for both industry and federal authorities.